In this two-part 9th grade lesson, students will learn about women leaders in the civil rights movement through an analysis of Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony at the Democratic National Convention of 1964.
This lesson will ask students to critically engage with the primary source of Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Students will learn about the barriers to women taking on formal leadership positions within the movement, and will learn that despite these barriers, many women contributed significantly to the civil rights movement in a variety of ways. Students will be asked to listen to Fannie Lou Hamer’s Testimony, and respond to comprehension and analysis questions in groups. In the second part of this lesson, students will share their group responses to the guiding questions with the class, and then will work on composing a newspaper article reporting on Hamer’s testimony at the DNC of 1964. The discussion questions and the newspaper article activity will demonstrate students’ analysis of a primary source. Through this lesson, students will learn about the multiple ways that Fannie Lou Hamer contributed to the movement, the hardships she faced, her strength and resilience, and her prowess as a public speaker.
Fannie Lou Hamer was one of many women leaders in the civil rights movement who participated in both community organizing and as an influential speaker.
- What can we learn about Fannie Lou Hamer’s involvement in the civil rights movement from the primary source?
- How did Fannie Lou Hamer demonstrate leadership in the civil rights movement?
- How did gender affect activists’ experiences and involvement within the civil rights movement?
Many African-American women were involved in the civil rights movement, doing work including organizing, strategizing, and facilitating both behind the scenes as well as in the public eye. Some of the many women involved in the movement include Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Anne Moody, Buelah Mae McDonald, Joann Robinson, Diane Nash, and Septima Clark, and the Women’s Political Council (who started the Montgomery bus boycott) . Though women were incredibly important in the movement, their contributions have been greatly underestimated and sometimes omitted entirely from historical texts and scholarly research.
Due to the attitudes about gender roles at the time, women’s participation in organizations was highly restricted. Men, not women, were expected to have formal leadership positions in practically all organizations in the movement.
For example, in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) women were generally excluded from positions of formal leadership. Men lacked confidence in women activists and expected women to take orders, not to provide leadership.
Women were also systematically excluded from formal leadership positions within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In SNCC between 1960 and 1965, all executive secretaries were men, the executive committee was constituted of mostly men, all committee chairs were men, and project directors were almost exclusively male until. When women took titled positions at SNCC, their influence was limited and their duties were restricted to clerical work. Consequently, many women activists chose to work “behind the scenes” or do fieldwork instead, which allowed them to have more autonomy.
Despite the limitations that they faced within the structures of the movement, women saw themselves as capable of doing anything men did, including putting themselves in danger for their cause. Their wisdom, physical strength, and courage were vital contributions to the movement.
One important African American woman activist was Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer was born in 1917 to a poor family of sharecroppers, and was the youngest child of twenty.
Hamer was 45 years old in 1962 when civil rights workers from SNCC came to her town and she decided to register to vote despite possibility of severe consequences. When the group she was with was faced with intimidation by the authorities at the courthouse, she started singing church songs like “Down by the Riverside,” and “This Little Light of Mine” which calmed, soothed and inspired everyone there. Because she had attempted to register, she was kicked off of the plantation where she lived. Due to her involvement in the movement, Hamer and her family faced danger, intimidation, and harassment frequently. Though she failed the literacy test the first time she attempted to register, she returned to try again every month until she passed in January, 1963.
After registering, she continued on as a civil rights activist until her death in 1977. Hamer worked as a field secretary for SNCC, was devoted to promoting literacy, worked with voter registration, helped to develop welfare programs, and circulated petitions to secure federal commodities for needy African American families.
Hamer was an exceptional public speaker due to her ability to communicate her character, goodwill, and charisma to the audience. Though Hamer only had six years of schooling and wasn’t always grammatically correct, her powerful speaking style made her able to communicate with people who were much more educated than herself. Her messages relied on Christian principles as well as African-American culture, and her testimonies were powerful and sincere. She often ended her speeches with church songs.
Hamer’s most well known contribution to the movement was her testimony on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFPD) at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Though President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to block the television coverage of the her testimony by scheduling a last minute press conference, it was broadcast on evening news programs nonetheless, leading to widespread support for the MFPD.
Hamer’s testimony made national headlines and was so moving that she received a standing ovation. Some audience members even “sobbed openly”. Hamer also made an important contribution to the movement by running as a candidate for the MFDP in the next congressional elections.
Despite Hamer’s important contributions, there were very few newspaper articles written about her and there was very little recognition of her achievements until the end of her life.
- Audio recording of Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony at the 1964 Democratic Convention
- Handout of Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony at the 1964 Democratic Convention and guiding questions
The teacher should begin class with a free-write activity where the students are given five minutes to respond to the prompt, “What makes someone a leader?” Encourage them to keep writing for the entire time. When five minutes are up, ask the students to share what they wrote in pairs, and then move to a full class discussion.
Next, give the students an introduction to the women leaders of the civil rights movement, and background information about Fannie Lou Hamer (see Introduction section).
Next, students will listen to Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Pass out the handout of her testimony and guiding questions. Have students follow along, highlighting and annotating their copy as they listen. After they listen, break them into groups of three to four students, and have them respond to the questions on the handout. One student in the group should take down the groups’ responses to be handed in.
To begin your next class period, make sure that students are in the same group they were in previously. Give them a few minutes to finish answering the questions or to review their answers, then give each group a few minutes to share their responses to the analysis questions with the rest of the class.
For the rest of class, student will write a newspaper article covering Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony at the Democratic National Convention.
Before the students begin, present them with the following guiding questions:
- What was the historical significance of Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony?
- What is the essential message of Hamer’s speech?
- What are the most important facts or details in the speech?
- What is Hamer’s speaking style like?
- How do you think the public would respond to Hamer’s testimony?
- What role might gender play in how she was perceived as a leader at the time?
- Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
- Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
- Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.
- Students compare the present with the past, evaluating the consequences of past events and decisions and determining the lessons that were learned.
- Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
Bramlett-Solomon, Sharon (1991) “Civil Rights Vanguard in the Deep South: Newspaper Portrayal of Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964-1977.” Journalism Quarterly Vol. 68, No. 3: 515-521.
Bryan, Dianette G. “Her-Story Unsilenced- Black Female Activities in the Civil Rights Movement” (1988). SAGE Vol. V, No. 2: 60-64.
“Fannie Lou Hamer: Testimony Before the Credentials Committee, DNConvention” American Rhetoric: Online Speech Bank. Last accessed March 4, 2013.
Hamlet, Janice D. D Fannie Lou Hamer: The Unquenchable Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. Journal of Black Studies 26.5 (1996): 560-576.
Robnett, Belinda (05/01/1996). “African-American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965: Gender, Leadership, and Micromobilization”. The American journal of sociology (0002-9602), 101 (6), p. 1661-76.
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